Sybil Exposed
by Debbie Nathan

Simon & Schuster, 2011. ISBN 978-1-439-16827-1.
Reviewed by Sherry Wachter
Posted on 11/20/2011

Nonfiction: Biography; Nonfiction: Relationships; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

In 1973 the world met Sybil, a woman who, as a result of horrific childhood abuse, has been forced to split herself into 16 distinct personalities. After years of therapy by the heroic Dr. Connie Wilbur, Sybil is reintegrated into a 17th, complete personality, and goes on to live a happy and productive life. The book is billed as non-fiction, and was initially presented as a case history.

An absolute ban on communication with "Sybil" was instituted upon the book's publication. Among other things, all of "Sybil's" psychiatric records were sealed. Whatever fact-checking or due diligence was done by psychiatrist Connie Wilbur and writer Flora Rheta Schreiber had to suffice; Sybil met the world as a fait accompli, which demanded the public accept it as true in its entirety. After all, why would anybody make up a story like this?

In 1973 the world met Sybil. Who the world did not meet was Shirley Ardell Mason, the woman whose life the book Sybil purported to document. Sybil Exposed, by author Debbie Nathan, sets out to rectify this. Though Wilbur's psychiatric records either remain sealed or were destroyed upon her death, Flora Rheta Schreiber's were donated to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and, after the death of Shirley Mason, the records were unsealed. It is these records, combined with records and interviews of those who knew Mason throughout her life, that form the basis of Nathan's thesis: That Wilbur's "treatment" (which included enormous, ongoing doses of Sodium Pentothal combined with barbiturates and hallucinogenics followed up by leading and suggestive questioning was in large part responsible for the "personalities."

Mason herself seems to have understood the "personalities" as ways for identifying certain emotions and actions, rather than as discrete people, and indeed at least once wrote Wilbur a letter (which has been preserved) trying to set the record straight. She argues that she is not multiples, but one person, and requests that her therapy focus not on unnecessary "fusion," but on exploring why she has felt it necessary to tell such stories. Wilbur interprets the letter as "denial," and sessions proceed as before.

Nathan provides evidence that Wilbur and Schreiber both had their doubts about the multiple personality disorder diagnosis, but found it professionally and financially advantageous to first create, and then maintain the fiction. In short, it is not an exaggeration to say that no matter who or what Shirley Mason may have been, Sybil was born in a marketing strategy meeting.

And therein lies the seeds of one of the fascinating and troubling passages in American cultural history. Sybil provided "proof" that children may suffer horrific abuse, repress the memory, and the recover it in therapy—and that such memories are always true. This idea was the basis of the Satanic Daycare furor that devastated so many lives—including that of Shirley Mason herself. When her "therapy" begins she is a functioning, productive woman. In short order she is a basket case of nerves and drug addiction, isolated from her support system and completely dependent on Wilbur. After Sybil is published, Mason spends the rest of her life in hiding.

In short, Wilbur and Schreiber, between them, take a bright, troubled, artistic woman and reduce her to a professional patient, and then isolate her from those who might have been able to help. It's a readable, thoroughly documented record of a woman who was arguably destroyed by the very woman she should have been able to trust the most—her therapist.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Debbie Nathan has been an award-winning journalist, editor and translator for over three decades. She writes about immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border, and sexual politics and sex panics, particularly in relation to women and children. She lives in New York City with her husband and has two grown children.

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